Not long ago, I saw the movie “Gladiator” for the very first time… even though it was released more than ten years ago. I’m not even sure why it took so long for me to see this. All the guys on my hall in my dorm that saw it thought it was excellent, and I can see why. I started watching this thinking it was going to be constant action sequences and limited story. But nope: this story is actually really good. And so is Russell Crowe. And best of all, “Gladiator” contains several profound themes that I, as a Christian, can relate to.
Crowe, in what many consider his breakthrough role, plays Maximus, a Roman general who, because of his victories in… battle (sorry, I’m not a huge history buff, and I only saw the movie once, so I can’t tell you WHAT battle), is picked by emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to be his heir, instead of Aurelius’ son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). In anger, Commodus murders his father and sends soldiers out to kill Maximus’ wife and son. Maximus escapes execution and finds his way home, but when he finds his family brutally murdered, he decides to avenge their deaths by going back to find Commodus. In the process, however, he becomes a slave, and is forced to fight in deathly combat in an arena—and of course, being a victorious Roman general, Maximus not only survives and wins, but he manages to keep his fellow slaves united. Pretty soon, Maximus’ victories in battle lead him to a meeting with Commodus, who eventually duels with him to the death. Guess who wins? Maximus. Guess who dies? Both of them. They’re both hurt pretty bad, and not only is Commodus killed in the duel, but Maximus dies from his wounds. However, as he dies, he sees in his mind his wife and son, who draw him into a beautiful land that represents the afterlife.
So that’s the first theme I want to address about this movie: the afterlife. The first shot in the film, after some credits describing the time period, is a close-up of a hand moving slowly through a meadow. When I first saw this, I thought: what? What does this mean? And then in the end of the movie, when Maximus dies and goes to see his family, we see that it’s his hand moving through the meadow and he walks to see his son again. To me, this is so significant. It’s as if from the very beginning, Maximus is thinking of the life to come after this one. The New Testament is filled with hopeful description of Heaven, from Jesus’ Gospels to the Apostle John’s book of Revelation. The Bible tells us not to focus so much on this life, but on the life to come. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Jesus, when he talks even about the end of the world, tells us in Matthew that only He and the Word of God remain at the end of the age: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (24:35) And Maximus—even though he isn’t a Christian—is certain that he will experience an afterlife. He tells Commodus when he finally meets him after his family’s execution: “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” And wouldn’t you know it, right when he gets his revenge in this life, he finds himself in the next.
The second main theme that stuck out to me is the idea of mercy. There’s a scene where Maximus is in the arena, having fought another man but not yet killed him. Commodus, on-looking, makes the thumbs-down gesture, signifying the command to have this man killed. But Maximus doesn’t do it: instead of using his ax to execute his opponent, he throws the ax down beside him, much to the confusion of Commodus and the audience. Someone even jokingly cries out to him, “Maximus the Merciful!” But Commodus doesn’t see this as a joke. He laments to one of his servants:
COMMODUS: And now they love Maximus for his mercy! So I can’t just kill him, or it makes me more unmerciful! The whole thing’s like some crazy… nightmare! …I will not make a martyr of him.
Jesus destroyed the old idea of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” when he preached his Word. He even tackles that idea head-on in Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Earlier in that chapter, in his Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, he says in verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Jesus even showed us mercy by dying on a cross for our sins. Mercy is a very interesting concept: when we show something mercy, it makes us lower than the other person, and yet that is where we need to be. And our enemies, such as Commodus was to Maximus, will notice us if we are merciful, and may even (like Commodus) fear us.
My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will invest less in this temporary life and more in the eternal life waiting for you in Heaven—and yet while you’re still in this temporary one, you will respond to your struggles, trials, and enemies with mercy that can only come from Jesus Christ.